Philip Glass review: World premiere of joyous ‘Perpetulum’

November 10, 2018
by Howard Reich

“…virtuosity and extroverted spirit…”

“…Glass wrote the piece so meticulously – and TCP articulated it so crisply – that every note, phrase and line rang out lucidly.”

“A sense of joy pervaded all this music, thanks to the intricately interlocking figures Glass wrote and TCP’s fastidious execution of them.”

The listeners who packed Francis W. Parker School’s auditorium on Friday evening encountered Philip Glass in three guises: pianist, composer and raconteur.

Two of them were quite appealing.

Glass, 81, came at the invitation of the Chicago Humanities Festival and Third Coast Percussion, a Chicago ensemble that commissioned the composer to do something he’d never done before: write a stand-alone work for percussion quartet.

The prospect of hearing a world premiere of a potentially significant opus by Glass, who next month will pick up a Kennedy Center Honor, explains why the event long had been sold out. This intense degree of interest proved justified, for the 21-minute work was the evening’s high point, by far.

Structured in three continuous movements, with a cadenza between the second and third, Glass’ “Perpetulum” crystallized the best features of his compositional language: rhythmic propulsion, ever-shifting tone colors and easy accessibility. You don’t need to be conversant in serial technique or, for that matter, most of the Western classical canon to respond to Glass’ pulsing rhythms and vivid timbres.

But “Perpetulum” was much more than just the repetitive drones that render some of Glass’ work underwhelming at best, numbing at worst. This was a score rich in musical incident, its meters and textures constantly changing, its embrace of pitched and non-pitched instrumentation immensely appealing to hear.

The work opened with telegraphic, Morse Code-like figurations from TCP ensemble member and executive director David Skidmore, whose colleagues entered the proceedings one by one on a battery of instruments. Drums, chimes, cymbals and more were the vehicles for all this sound, yet Glass wrote the piece so meticulously – and TCP articulated it so crisply – that every note, phrase and line rang out lucidly.

A dreamier, more lyrical slow movement offered shards of melody wrapped in layers of rhythm, a stark contrast to what had come before, and a most appealing one, at that. If I correctly identified the start of the cadenza, which was penned not by Glass but by members of TCP, it was recognizable not only for its virtuosity and extroverted spirit but also by what came next: the classic driving rhythms that are Glass’ stock in trade.

A sense of joy pervaded all this music, thanks to the intricately interlocking figures Glass wrote and TCP’s fastidious execution of them. You just had to smile throughout this performance. It’s easy to see “Perpetulum” becoming a signature piece for TCP and, sooner or later, being performed by percussion ensembles everywhere.

Skidmore interviewed the composer onstage immediately before the “Perpetulum” premiere, saying he couldn’t find the title word anywhere via his Google searches. Glass explained that he was from Baltimore, where a lot of things “are made up,” and, true to form, so was the word, which Glass said he coined as a fusion of “perpetual” and “momentum.”

He added that he felt “Perpetulum” had a “symphonic feeling” to it, and that once he decided to include a cadenza, the piece became “almost like a concerto for quartet.”

The composer also reminisced on his years, long ago, as a student at the University of Chicago. This was when “Adlai Stevenson was running for president,” said Glass, looking out at the audience.

“Does anybody remember that, besides me?”

Judging by the murmurs in the house, a few did.

Glass also marveled at his career as a musician.

“I had no expectation that by the age of 41 or 42 I would be able to make a living” in music, said Glass, who for years drove a cab and took on other day jobs to pay the bills.

And he urged other composers to do as he had done, publishing and releasing his music himself, thereby retaining ownership.

“As long as you’re the author, you’re the owner, unless you give it away,” said Glass. “And there’s no reason to give it away.”

The evening opened with its weakest component, Glass as solo pianist, playing his “Mad Rush” (which, alas, was neither mad nor rushed). How much one appreciated this performance depended entirely on one’s patience for rhythmic repetition, harmonic stasis and simplistic pianism.

Mine ran out after about the first 32 bars (there were hundreds more to come).

Fortunately, “Perpetulum” was in the offing.


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